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Jul 22, 2005

Arena plays arm-chair coach

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- As Bruce Arena sat in the U.S. locker room in the bowels of Giants Stadium, he wasn't fidgety or still in a huff over his ejection. He was disillusioned, having been tossed out of his team's CONCACAF Gold Cup match against Honduras rather quickly and without warning.

"I don't think there was anything wrong with what I did," Arena said. "I jumped up and said a four-letter word."

Whether or not officials were too quick to give him his walking papers over his protest of a non-call in front of the U.S. team bench, the veteran coach was forced to watch the final 31 minutes on a small television.

And like most fans do, he started making comments to a small group of U.S. staffers, including general manager Pam Perkins, as the match unfolded as an armchair coach. Even while his players were still trying to tie a match they'd been trailing since the 30th minute of the first half, he turned to his colleagues and gave a quick observation about the Honduran side.

"There's 25 more minutes left in this game," Arena said, "and they're holding back."

The attack-minded Hondurans were suddenly trying to hold on for dear life rather than keep with their game plan of going right at the U.S. defense like they did with much success in the first half.

"Their whole posture was a little too defensive," he said.

Just as Arena guessed, the Honduran bunkering tactic ultimately failed, as John O'Brien and Oguchi Onyewu scored for the U.S. in the final seven minutes of the game (five minutes regulation, two extra time) to come back for a 2-1 victory.

"What a great win for our players," said Arena, whose squad moves on to the Gold Cup final against Panama Sunday at Giants Stadium.

Despite the final result, it was far from a strong performance for the Americans. Honduras didn't just score an early goal and then hold off U.S. onslaught for the rest of the match. The Catrachos carried the play for long portions of the match, especially in the early going.

Behind a crowd of 41,721 that was pro-Honduran first, pro-Colombian second and pro-U.S. third, Honduras jumped all over the U.S. from the outset. The speed of players such as striker Milton Nunez and right-side midfielder Oscar Garcia made the American backs appear slow. With both outside midfielders making runs down the flanks, Honduras was able to exploit the gaps in the 3-4-3 formation employed by Arena.

"I think that they recognized that we were playing with three in the back straight away," said Jimmy Conrad, who started as the team's left back. "They realized where the spaces were, and they hit the balls there. It made us work and turned us around. It made us play defense in the face of our own goal, which is not ideal for any defender."

Three center backs started the match with Eddie Pope flanked by Conrad on his left and Onyewu on his right. After Pope injured his left ankle early in the match and was eventually taken off in the 15th minute, Onyewu slid over to the middle and substitute Frankie Hejduk slotted in on the right. In the midfield, Arena had Pablo Mastroeni in his usual holding role behind Landon Donovan, who was flanked by O'Brien on the left and Chris Armas on the right. Steve Ralston and DaMarcus Beasley played as wings next to Josh Wolff, who remained high up top to stretch the Honduran back four.

The U.S. was not able to move the ball seamlessly and keep possession in this match in the fashion that it did against Jamaica during its 3-1 victory Saturday. The Americans had a hard time finding Donovan in the center of the field, and several of the balls played to Wolff in hopes of having the wings run off him were thwarted by the strong defending of Samuel Caballero.

"The first 20 minutes were terrible," Donovan said.

"We couldn't really get our rhythm," O'Brien added. "We had a tough time passing it around. We had a tough time getting guys forward."

It didn't help that the new sod covering the Field Turf below made cutting very difficult for the players, with divots flying throughout the game.

"They didn't have any confidence with the ball," Arena said. "On a good field today, we would have been pretty well in control of the game."

The Honduras players were sliding around as though they were on ice at times, as well, but looked pretty sure of their footing when scoring the first goal, which came as a result of a giveaway by Hejduk. Midfielder Mario Ivan Guerrero found a hole in the U.S. defense and made a well-timed run down the middle after Hejduk's miscue. Nunez skillfully found his teammate with a deft touch with the outside of his foot that Guerrero was able to gather and have a free look at the goal. Just as U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller guessed to his right, Guerrero beat him to his left to give Honduras the lead.

Even after the U.S. regrouped and put together multiple passes, the team's timing seemed a bit off, and the usual flow was not there. One has to credit Honduras for this. The Catrachos defended as a group, starting with the tireless work of the two strikers pressuring balls out of the back. While the Americans nearly struck oil on a header by Ralston that rang off the right post in the 36th minute and a few other dangerous forays into the Honduran zone to end the half, they went into the locker room down a goal.

"We knew at halftime the adjustments we had to make, and we made them," Arena said.

Arena slid O'Brien into the center of the midfield along with Armas, while Donovan moved up front alongside Wolff. Ralston and Beasley moved back into the midfield, which put the U.S. into a 3-5-2. The system stayed the same even after Mastroeni sprained his right ankle in the 58th minute, which forced the U.S. to make another early substitution, bringing in Clint Dempsey.

Shortly after Arena's ejection, the game started to change in favor of the U.S.

"I think they got tired quicker than we did," said Dempsey, who was later moved up top as a third forward before the U.S. got on the board. "The play opened up, and we were able to run at them. I would get the ball and be free to turn and go."

Dempsey did a solid job adding some energy, as did O'Brien, who was orchestrating things out of the midfield as the team's playmaker. Once the U.S. was able to control the ball a bit and spread it around to make Honduras chase, one could sense that a goal would be coming.

"Finally we found some space and we got our defenders into the game a little," Donovan said. "That opened things up."

Even before O'Brien struck on a left-footed shot in the 86th minute, the U.S. appeared ready to knot the game up. Ten minutes earlier, a sequence in which three New England Revolution players touched the ball -- Dempsey to Ralston to Pat Noonan -- nearly ended with a goal by Noonan, whose header was saved by goalkeeper Junior Morales with a dive to his left on the line. The same type of play occurred in the 83rd minute, but this time it was a well-struck header from Donovan off a feed from Ralston that Morales was able to snare from point-blank range.

Honduras manager Jose de la Paz said the "physical prowess" played a role in the U.S. side's resurgence as the match wore on. He also said he was hampered by having to substitute out starting goalkeeper Victor Coello at the end of the first half because of an injury. De la Paz didn't want to risk using that all-important final substitution in case something happened to Morales. It ended up hurting his tired side, which definitely could have used a jolt of energy with a pair of fresh legs in the final 10 minutes of the match.

What had to sting the Honduras manager even further was how the final goal was scored. The fact that Onyewu -- by far, the largest player on the field who deserved full attention on set plays -- shook his mark quite easily and was able to get his head on a Donovan cross from the right side to end the match moments before the final whistle was something that didn't take Honduras by surprise. In fact, they had prepared for how they wanted to defend the U.S. on set plays after watching game film from previous matches.

No matter what the strategy was, it's hard to stop a 6-foot-4, 210-pound freight train like Onyewu when a ball is placed right where it was intended.

"We've been getting opportunities on free kicks and corner kicks all game, and I missed one barely in the first half, but we kept on knocking on the door," said Onyewu, who nearly tallied on a header off a corner kick wide to the left in the first half. "I think we were bound to get a good opportunity."

Had the U.S. not tied the match earlier, Arena said the final message he gave to the bench before leaving was to put Onyewu up top as a forward if they needed a goal to utilize his ability in the air. The newcomer of only eight caps didn't see time as a striker, yet the result was the same when he got his chance. In the process, the 23-year-old who plays for Standard de Liege in Belgium surely helped further his case for inclusion in future U.S. qualifiers, and made a few new friends who were not looking forward to overtime.

"I don't think anyone wanted to play an extra 30 minutes," joked Onyewu, known as "Gooch" to his teammates.

Same for Arena, who would have had to watch it all unfold on the television without having any input.

"My phone doesn't work in Giants Stadium," he joked.

Maybe it will Sunday. Otherwise, the U.S. manager will be limited to armchair duties once again as he serves his expected one-game suspension while his assistant, Glenn "Mooch" Myernick, takes the reins on the sideline.

Marc Connolly covers soccer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at: marc@oakwoodsoccer.com.